A return to tribalism won’t save Labour

The centre left must embrace pluralism if it is to avoid permanent decline.

What is Labour's political purpose and strategy? The fault lines are now becoming clear: to go it alone, or build a wider political alliance?

Dan Hodges, in his usual robust and entertaining style, offers the case for the former through the creation of an alliance within Labour of the working and middle classes. Sound familiar? That's because it is. In effect, it's the big-tent strategy of one Mr T Blair, whom Dan so effectively opposed over ten years, for selling out the Labour cause.

But now it's the big tent as one more heave. And Dan and other leftist supporters of this strategy find themselves firmly anchored to other Labourists of the right such as John Reid. They find common cause in saying No to AV and No to anything that doesn't offer the hope of a majority Labour government that can usher in socialism for our people from above.

So why will this big tent be any different from Blair's, especially when Dan would rather the ringmaster was David Miliband? There is no reason to expect it will. To create such an alliance, all the emphasis will again be on the swing voters in the swing seats that Blair courted so effectively and in so doing stopped Labour being Labour.

Remember how in 1997 Labour won 140,000 new AB votes but lost four million Ds and Es. The big tent doesn't work even as an electoral strategy – let alone for social, economic and political transformation.

To be fair, it did once, in 1945, but that moment, along with the class and culture that spawned it, have long gone. The world has moved on, become more fragmented and complex. Centre-left politics will follow or wither still further.

Two things are interesting here. First, the initial New Labour victory in 1997 was based largely on a pluralist approach to politics – with a strong opening-out to Ashdown, Jenkins and the whole Cook/McLennan process. As Labour retreated to a one-party approach, so its vote collapsed and its radicalism shrank.

The second thing that is interesting is that the extreme tribalists like Dan Hodges and John Reid recognised the power of pluralism through their alliance with David Cameron and George Osborne to smash AV. So they practise pluralism to entrench tribalism. Weird, hey?

Holey misguided

These extreme tribalists are in a hole and want to keep Labour in it. They want the trench warfare of old adversarial politics, despite the fact that the poor are getting poorer and it's palpably not delivering for the left. It is based on "getting the right people elected", whoever these people are. The neoliberals in Labour ranks are bizarrely tolerated and much more social Liberals or egalitarian Greens despised.

Through their victory for keeping first-past-the-post (FPTP) they will try to lock the left into the politics of decline as the 1.6 per cent of the electorate that matters in the dwindling number of swing seats will deform our politics still further. A politics that gives all power to Murdoch and the Mail. As the old parties continue to disappoint under a system that focuses on so few, so voters look elsewhere or withdraw.

It's why FPTP will deliver more hung parliaments as the shared vote of the big two parties, but Labour in particular, drops. Yet such defiant tribalism creates the problem but denies the solution as the likes of Reid exercise their veto over voting reform or coalition-building with other parties, as they did so effectively after the general election last year. It is the politics of permanent opposition through self-marginalisation as they dream of a better 1945.

Labour did badly in the recent elections because it is still pursing the failed strategy and politics of New Labour. It is not offering an alternative political economy and it is refusing, because of the likes of Dan and John Reid, to operate in the world as it is, preferring the comfort of past glories. Ed Miliband – far too tentatively for my liking – is at least trying to push at the boundaries of a politics that will make Labour both social and democratic.

We are going to have to chart a course through the complexities of a world in which the politics of Caroline Lucas, Chris Huhne, Charlie Kennedy and others are less pro-market, more democratic and sustainable than John Reid, Margaret Beckett and David Blunkett. It requires the mobilisation narrative of a Good Society to coalesce and spark into life a progressive majority that can be created – and must be created.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.